The Degeneration Game


My ambitions as a poker player are relatively modest. It would be nice to swim among the sharks who consistently turn over six and seven figure annual profits but if I can ever get to a point where I can clear around £30,000 a year then I’ll be a very happy chap. That’s a figure that will allow me to cover my life expenses and spend plenty of time on the road. The money itself isn’t really the goal so much as the fact that I see poker as a vehicle that can support my twin ambitions of travelling the world and not starving to death. The fairly boring life of the online pro may be in stark contrast to the glitz of the televised tournaments but given the choice of 12 hours online grind in a van in Serbia and eight hours in an office dealing with other people’s problems then I’m going to find a parking space well away from any visiting Archdukes and hit the tables faster than you can say Black Hand Gang every single time.

The life of the pro naturally brings its own challenges. The battles with variance, the motivation to spend 98% of a session simply clicking the correct button and the difficulties of finding a way to have a piss if you still have tables going after five to the hour are some of the better recognised issues but one of the trickier quandaries that swings on and off the radar on a fairly regular basis is the question of how morally comfortable a person can be exploiting people for a living.

It’s no surprise, given my socialist leanings, that a number of friends have asked how I can square up my social outlook with the fact that winning at poker means taking advantage of ‘weak’ people who may be mathematically incompetent or problem gamblers. David Lappin has written on several occasions about his struggles with this question and there was a very interesting thread in the Ace High Poker Group recently in which a number of scenarios were presented, from preying on an obviously tilted opponent sitting at the table to the single mother handing you her poker chips with the unfortunate consequence that her children don’t get any potato chips.

I’m absolutely fine with it.

Vlad and Jo
Vlad and Jo discussing form ahead of the 3.40 Novice Chase at Wincanton

I completely sympathise with the human aspect and the problems these people have aren’t to be ignored. I spent five years managing bookmakers’ offices and a found myself morally compromised every day knowing that the job that I was doing was almost completely reliant on squeezing the pips out of people who really needed help. I recognise that there are times when it’s right to do what you can to prevent people from making unwise decisions when they’re not thinking correctly. Equally, there are also times when – sometimes reluctantly – you simply have to let them get on with it and look after your own interests. The poker table is one of these places.

If somebody sits down at our table, out of their depth, out of their stakes and badly tilted we should have no qualms about taking their chips. It’s difficult taking from people who clearly can’t afford it but as an adult it’s their own decision to sit at the table and we should be willing to accept it, even if it’s monumentally stupid. You’re both there to play poker so do what you always do – knuckle down and play the best you can. When you’re at the table you only have responsibility for your own decisions, not your opponents’. Unless you’ve actively persuaded them to sit down with their money then you’re not responsible for the wisdom of their choice to play either.

It would be reasonable at this stage to suggest that it’s hypocritical for me to say it’s fine for me to take money from players who shouldn’t be there but wrong for bookies to do exactly the same. The key difference is what goes on away from the tables. Bookies – and their close cousins poker sites, bingo halls and lottery operators – exist solely to make as much money as they can and have no social conscience whatsoever; they answer to their shareholders alone and the shareholders want maximum profits.

Lotteries: The ‘acceptable’ form of problem gambling

Their marketing departments sell all potential customers a scarcely achievable dream, usually based on persuading you to take mathematical wagers weighted heavily in favour of the house. Their targeted marketing attracts ‘punters’, among whom are a huge number of statistically naive and psychologically damaged individuals. I’m sure there are exceptions but I’ve yet to see a poker player actively hustle vulnerable individuals to the table with the intention of taking them to the cleaners. In my experience it’s most likely that players would actively intervene away from the table if somebody looked like they were in trouble.

Many involved in the industry will argue that the Gambling Commission and their overseas equivalents have led to greater social responsibility from operators but I’ve spent long enough within those circles to know that their facade of ‘responsibility’ is utter bollocks; a pointless empty vessel upon which charlatans pay lip service to the wellbeing of customers in return for slot machine licenses that enable them to empty the pockets of the very people they claim to protect.

The question for me is where one draws the line between looking for a solid edge and exploiting the vulnerable and I think that line can be drawn very distinctly at the pay desk. The second a person sits down with chips then they’re fair game, regardless of how drunk, tilted or vulnerable they are. If you know the person in question then it’s right and proper to try and help before or after they’ve played and as a decent human being then you may feel bad about relieving them of their chips, but it’s your responsibility as a poker player to do exactly that. ‘If we don’t do it then somebody else will’ is usually the wishy-washy defence of arms dealers, slave traders and other cowards but it’s a position with genuine depth at the poker table, particularly in tournaments as somebody literally has to have all the chips at the end. There are, admittedly, more nuances when it comes to ring games but the point remains – if there are chips on the table they’re to be played for.

Let’s say you’re a good pool player and you pay £1,000 to enter a tournament. You’ve done your homework on the likely opponents, you’ve been practicing every day for a month and you’re in the zone. You know that it’s a tough field but you’re in with a good shout of winning. When you reach the venue you happen to run into a good friend who’s been out of sorts since his girlfriend has left him. He likes to play pool in the pub occasionally but he’s not very good. He’s also steaming drunk.

When your friend tells you that he’s decided to enter the tournament then it’s right and proper to persuade him that it’s an incredibly bad idea based on drunken whimsy. You’re willing to sacrifice the extra equity in the prize fund because you don’t want to see a good mate lose a lot of money because he’s in a bad place and not thinking properly. Any decent human being would do the same, but if he decides to play then it’s unfortunate but you’ve done what you can.

Swimming Pool
Not that sort of pool you idiot!

In spite of your best efforts your friend decides to play. He wins his first game after some outrageously good fortune from bad shots, he wins the next as his opponent’s balls wound up in tricky spots and he wins the third thanks to a foul on the black. He faces you in the quarter-final. What do you do? Do you go easy on him? Do you withdraw from the competition because it would be unfair to play him? No, of course you don’t, because it’s a contest and we’re competing with the intention of winning. You hand him his arse on a plate and put him on the train to Brokesville. You wouldn’t be expected to compromise in any other game and poker shouldn’t be an exception. Once the game is over we can think about straightening him out but we can never put ourselves in a position where we have to suffer because of somebody else’s bad choices.

Good people are never going to be comfortable taking advantage of others but poker is fundamentally about exploiting other people’s bad decisions. If Phil Ivey bluffs off his stack while you’re holding quads you wouldn’t dream of refusing his chips because he’d made a bad decision. When Drunko McTilty has paid to sit down at the table we should give equal respect to his decisions too.

Never take a sword to a gunfight, even if some lunatic has turned up with a feather duster.



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